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Is there a difference in the meaning or the usage of the verbs understand and comprehend? Which one would fit best in the following sentence?

In order to speak and understand/comprehend a language, there has to be a representation of the words.

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  • This may be answered by a comparison of the two words in a good dictionary. Voting to close as general reference.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 11:35
  • @Robusto: a dictionary won't tell you relative rarity or register.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 12:30
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    Why are many interesting questions closed? This question at least addresses 1) Usage, word choice, and grammar and 2) Etymology (history of words’ development), beyond anything a dictionary can provide. I like questions to improve my comprehension and understanding of English, not just correct grammar mistakes or wrong term usage.
    – Vladtn
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:27
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    @Vladtn: Well, ask yourself this: "Why did I choose comprehension instead of understanding in my third sentence?"
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:47
  • @Robusto "The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. Questions on the following topics are welcomed here: - Word choice and usage"
    – Flek
    Commented Dec 25, 2015 at 19:11

3 Answers 3

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Comprehend (through its Latin etymology, from comprehendere, cum: with + prehendere: grab) also has a spatial connotation, like encompass, by which one's thought surrounds a particular topic, like the hand an object, seeing all aspects and limits of a concept, but indeed, without maybe peeking inside like with true understanding.

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They are mostly synonymous but 'understand' is much more everyday than 'comprehend'.

Also, in addition to the connotation of 'inclusion', 'comprehend' is more intense.

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The words are synonymous but have slight difference between them. Understanding has a connotation of a deeper, fuller realization of a matter while comprehension is less deep and less full.

For an example, assume a person spoke elemental Spanish. If this person read a bit of poetry, he might comprehend the words but could easily not understand the meaning.

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    Hm ... Interesting, in OALD it is explained the other way round, unstanding: to know or realize the meaning of words or to know or realize how or why something happens, but comprehend: to understand something fully, while comprehend is often used in negative sentences.
    – Em1
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 12:12
  • There will be localized differences, for instance in Canada there are a lot of "reading comprehension" tests, I think this testing also extends into the United States and so "comprehension" can mean that you understand what is being said but only at a superficial level. Because of how common these tests are and how early they are administered and how seldom the use of the word "comprehension" is used, this connotation is dominant. Understanding is considered something deeper, perhaps having the ability to actually perform described tasks for instance.
    – Quaternion
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:16

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